Exclusive: HP weighing sale of webOS unit - sources

NEW YORK/SAN FRANCISCO Tue Nov 8, 2011 10:50pm IST

A man walks past the Hewlett Packard logo at its French headquarters in Issy le Moulineaux, western Paris, in this September 16, 2005 file photograph.  REUTERS/Charles Platiau/Files

A man walks past the Hewlett Packard logo at its French headquarters in Issy le Moulineaux, western Paris, in this September 16, 2005 file photograph.

Credit: Reuters/Charles Platiau/Files

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NEW YORK/SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - Hewlett-Packard Co is looking to sell Palm's webOS mobile software platform, a deal that could fetch hundreds of millions of dollars but less than the $1.2 billion that HP paid last year, four sources close to the matter said.

Advised by Bank of America Merrill Lynch, HP is trying to figure out how to recoup its investment in Palm, viewed by many analysts and investors as an expensive foray into the smartphone market that has not paid off.

Several technology companies have expressed an interest in buying the division, which is seen as attractive for its patents, the sources said.

Amazon.com Inc, Research In Motion, IBM, Oracle Corp and Intel Corp are considered to be among the companies likely to be interested in the asset, industry sources said.

The future of the unit, which HP acquired when it bought Palm in 2010, was in jeopardy after the company decided to kill its webOS-based TouchPad tablet following poor sales.

An HP spokesman said "we are exploring ways to optimize the webOS software," and declined to further comment.

HP is still mulling the software's future, including if it should build a new webOS-based tablet, HP's new chief executive Meg Whitman said in a recent interview.

"The question now before us is what do we do with webOS software and do we come back to market with webOS devices," Whitman said. "It obviously will not be the same device but it will be version 2.0."

In October, HP ditched a plan to spin off its personal computers unit, a month after the ouster of CEO Leo Apotheker whose idea would have cost billions of dollars in expenses and lost business.

The boutique investment bank Perella Weinberg, which had been hired by Apotheker at the time to explore alternatives, has since lost the mandate as HP's adviser, the sources said.

Perella Weinberg was not immediately available for comment. Bank of America declined to comment.

RICH PATENTS?

But one of the sources said that any auction would not fetch a high price, given webOS has not received significant investment in over a year. "This won't be the most robust auction in the world," the source said.

Palm's former CEO Jon Rubinstein, currently in a product innovation role at HP's Personal Systems Group, which houses the webOS division, is an Amazon board member.

HP decided to buy Palm for over $1.2 billion in cash last April, billing the acquisition as a way for the company to participate more aggressively in the red-hot mobile market. HP acknowledged at the time that Palm housed "significant IP assets."

HP bought Palm mostly for the patent value and tablets were not an important strategic direction, said a fifth source familiar with the acquisition. The patents held by webOS could be used as defense by potential buyers to ward off patent infringement lawsuits, experts say.

Apotheker made webOS a central strategy, announcing in March that HP planned to incorporate webOS across most of its products. The TouchPad was to be the flagship device for the operating system.

Then HP discontinued the TouchPad in August -- little over a month after it hit store shelves with costly fanfare -- following poor demand for a tablet priced on par with Apple's dominant iPad.

WebOS is widely viewed as a strong mobile platform, but has been assailed for its paucity of applications, an important consideration while choosing a mobile device.

Also, the market is now mainly dominated by Apple and Google Android-based products. Microsoft's Mango platform comes a distant third.

(Reporting by Nadia Damouni in New York and Poornima Gupta in San Francisco; Editing by Phil Berlowitz)

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